Catalogue description Records of the British Phosphate Commissioners

Details of Division within DO
Reference: Division within DO
Title: Records of the British Phosphate Commissioners

Records of the British Phosphate Commissioners relating to the mining, sale and distribution of phosphate from the Nauru and Ocean Islands and also including files on the legal claims against the Commissioners brought by the Banaban islanders from 1975 to 1976 are in DO 140.

Date: 1873-1983
Related material:

Records of the Australian and New Zealand Commissioners are deposited in the National Archives of Australia, c1940-.

Legal status: Not Public Record(s)
Language: English

British Phosphate Commissioners, 1919-1982

Physical description: 1 series
Administrative / biographical background:

Under article 119 of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919, Germany renounced all her rights over the Island of Nauru in the Western Pacific and mandate for the administration of the Island was conferred upon Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

On 2 July 1919 an agreement between the Governments of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand was signed which, inter alia, provided for the setting up of a Board of Commissioners, one to be appointed by each Government, to hold and manage the phosphate deposits to be acquired from the Pacific Phosphate Company. By an agreement dated 25 June 1920 the Company's rights on Nauru and on Ocean Island were acquired for £3,500,000. The capital was provided by the United Kingdom (42%), Australia (42%) and New Zealand (16%) and was fully repaid to these Governments by 1976.

After the outbreak of war with Japan in December 1941 the activities of the Commission were increasingly restricted by enemy action and by the end of August 1942 the Japanese occupied both Islands. When the Islands were finally reoccupied in September and October 1945 very great damage was found to have been done to the plant and equipment. During the period 1946 to 1949 the Islands were substantially rehabilitated and reconstructed from the Commission's resources and the production of phosphates then rapidly increased.

From 1 January 1949 the Commissioners also acted as managing agents for the Christmas Island undertaking which was purchased by the Governments of Australia and New Zealand and became the Christmas Island Phosphate Commission.

By the Nauru Phosphate Agreement 1967, Nauru, which became independent on 31 January 1968, purchased the assets on Nauru and from 1 July 1970 took full control of the Nauruan operation.

Following a meeting in November 1977 between representatives of the then Gilbert Islands Government and the Banaban community, Ocean Island was renamed Banaba. On 12 July 1979 the Gilbert Islands became the independent state of Kiribati which includes Banaba.

The Commissioners managed operations at Banaba until the phosphates were exhausted in 1979. British Phosphate Commission's withdrawal from the Island was completed on 27 January 1980.

A legal action had previously been brought by a number of Banaban plaintiffs against the Commissioners. Claim against the Commissioners included demands for specific performance of provisions relating to the replanting of trees in mined out land, wrongful removal of phosphate from certain lands and wrongful removal of sand from a beach area. The case was heard in 1975 over a period of 106 days of Court sittings and became a part of legal history by being the longest civil case on record for the British High Court. Judgement was delivered in the High Court of Justice, London during November and December, 1976.

The Court found the Commissioners liable in respect of the tree planting claim but the judgement indicated that the amount payable be subject to negotiation. Following failure of the negotiations the matter was referred back to the Court in March 1977 and damages awarded to certain of the plaintiffs in the sum of A$75 per acre, each side bearing its own costs. In order to settle the matter without further delay or appeal the Commissioners repeated an earlier offer of $1,250,000 and, in June 1978, this offer was accepted by the Banabans.

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